I’ve always found it hard to define what kind of writer I am. What box should I be put it? Can I be contained in one or do I overspill into others? But I do know that I am a novelist and that I write about the smallness of things that reflects the largeness of universal themes. I am not a comic writer but there is humour in my books. Not necessarily laugh-out-loud humour, but a wryness that hopefully brings a smile to the faces of at least some of my readers and a nod of recognition at the quirks and daftness of human life and relationships.
I feel wary about describing novelists as ‘comic’ as this has somehow come to be a rather belittling verb. And I don’t want to belittle the power and importance of humour in fiction or indeed in life itself. So for the purpose of this blog I am going to use the word ‘funny’ because even the word ‘funny’ is funny.
Novelists write in different ways. They have different outlooks on life, different experiences, different worldviews. Readers like to read different books for the very same reason. But when I drew up a list of my favourite novelists I found that they all had humour in common.
The type of funny novel I like is not a collection of one-liner gags scattered throughout. Instead they employ a humour that is far subtler than that, more deeply engrained in the writing, stories and characters. The humour is the voice of the narrator, a way of looking at life, a turn of phrase. It eases tension. It provides respite from difficult moments. And it uplifts, leaving the reader with a sense of the resilience of the human spirit.
This all sounds very grand and worthy. And yes, I want to celebrate and elevate humour in writing, just as I want to do this in life. Even at my lowest points I have been with people who can make me laugh. During labour my husband and I were quoting lines from Father Ted. And when I had a breakdown, running away to a remote place on Exmoor, my friend came to find me bringing a flask of tea, custard doughnuts and her northern wit. And I came home, went to bed and read a funny book.
So I’d like to recommend my favourite novelists to you. They all happen to be British and many of them women. Not sure what that says, but I am very proud to be a British woman. We are adept, on the whole, at seeing the absurdity of life. And it is good to be reminded that comedy is not an exclusive male-only club. Women are funny too.
Top Ten (in no particular order) British Novelists:
1. Kate Atkinson Death and trauma but always a relentless wit
2. David Lodge Farce, satire and hilarious characters
3. Laurie Graham Turn of phrase and the sheer energy of her voice
4. Kate Long Turn of phrase, comic ease, and dare I say ‘northern charm’? Yes, I do.
5. Alan Bennett Not necessarily a novelist but exquisite use of ‘ordinary’ language. (Why are Alsatians called Tina so funny?)
One does not laugh out loud while reading Pym; that would be too much. One smiles. One smiles and puts down the book to enjoy the smile. Then one picks it up again and a few minutes later an unexpected observation on human foibles makes one smile again…a novel that on one level is about very little, is a great novel about a great deal. Alexander McCall Smith
7. Sue Townsend Dark humour
In my opinion it is a waste of time. Bert is nearly ninety and Queenie is nearly eighty. I will leave it until the last minute before I buy a wedding present.
Sublime. Adrian Mole is one of the greatest comi-tragic anti-heroes in the canon of British literature.
8. Helen Fielding Another fictional diarist, Bridget Jones, who has become embedded in British culture.
9. George and Weedon Grossmith Diary of a Nobody – Yes, another diary but just the name Pooter makes me laugh. As cringe-worthy and full of pathos as David Brent.
10. Clare Chambers Brilliant accounts of life in suburbia – clever, witty and so recognisable for me.
Whoops. I’d better sneak in one more. How could I leave out Jane Austen, mother of irony?
Can you learn to be funny? Do you have to have had dark times, to see the lighter side of life? Is your funny different to my funny?
Whatever your thoughts, reading some of the novels of the above funny writers may bring you some moments of joy. And we all need a little joy in our lives.
How did you know that Kate Atkinson was my favourite living author. 🙂 A great piece. Thank you, Sophie.
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